The Inside of an Immigrant Holding Cell

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It’s hard to imagine life for immigrants the U.S. government labels illegal and locks away in facilities closed to the public. Artist Jenny Polak explores these secretive detention spaces in her exhibit, part of the “Tactical Action” group show mounted at Gigantic ArtSpace, 59 Franklin Street until June 10. Using descriptions and sketches supplied by detainees nationwide, including in the New York City area, she fed information into a Computer Assisted Design (CAD) program to transform the original depictions into techno-visuals.

City Limits: What are the legal issues surrounding this imagery?

Jenny Polak: You aren’t allowed to photograph [inside immigration detention facilities], so I wanted to find a more subjective way of representing them, using drawings by detainees. This guy was in Elizabeth, in New Jersey, a main detention center for this area. He was in there about three years, then he got very sick and they paroled him. There’s no outdoor exercise place, so one of the images is this little cubicle with mesh over the ceiling. It’s absurdly small. It was driving him crazy.

CL: Tell me how you moved to computer-generated images.

JP: My background is in architecture. I was interested in the reverse of the usual CAD process, where you try to make it look as realistic as possible. Instead, I wanted to see what would happen if you fed an amateur drawing into the program. I got these very strange images of people’s memories. There are all these barriers left in people’s minds.

CL: Is that different than a regular prison experience?

JP: They don’t have a release date and don’t know how long they’re going to be stuck there. There’s no right to legal representation. Also, if in your mind you’ve never done anything wrong, it’s psychologically very disruptive.

CL: Does the computer program oversterilize? The images are so stark.

JP: The programs are designed to give you an idealized building that doesn’t exist, but in your dreams that’s how it would be. It’s nightmarish. And it should be, because this system uses prisons and bits of prisons all around the country, and moves people away from their families. A terrible sense of isolation results. It’s extra-punitive.

CL: Do you hope the images will serve a purpose?

JP: There needs to be broad resistance to the repression there is now. I just want to contribute to that general sense of anger. –Hillary Russ